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Plans for Fla. bullet train continuing

(The following article by Bill Rufty was posted on the Lakeland Ledger website on March 31.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the three years since Florida voters mandated a high-speed rail system, the rail system's fortunes in the Florida Legislature often have seemed to roll forward a mile and then backtrack a half-mile.

Despite opposition from Gov. Jeb Bush and many legislators, plans for the system survive and continue to move forward.

This year, opponents failed to win the three-fifths vote in the Florida House needed to send the measure back to voters in the hope they would repeal it.

But Bush's effort to secure enough voter signatures to put high-speed rail back on the ballot is continuing, with Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher raising money to hire a company to collect the signatures and run a campaign to defeat high-speed rail.

In the meantime, life goes on for supporters of the bullet train. Fluor, one half of Fluor Bombardier, the joint vendor hired to build the first rail link from Tampa to Orlando, has its own lobbyist working with Beth Gosnel, who is the lobbyist for the Florida Transportation Association.

That association, funded in part by C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland, who spent $3 million of his own money to get the highspeed rail amendment on the ballot in 2000, is working to get the Legislature to free up money to begin building the first phase, which could have a stop in Lakeland as well as Disney.

Even with those two stops, supporters say the train will travel from the Orlando International Airport to downtown Tampa in at least 46 minutes.

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority requested $72 million to begin construction. The House has budgeted $32 million, but with a "poison pill" saying that the money must come from new road construction money.

"That is ridiculous," said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. "That should come from gasoline tax revenues the same as other transportation projects like mass transit and airports. This was done to kill the appropriation, but it won't work."

Sen. Paula Dockery, also RLakeland and Doc Dockery's wife, is protecting the train in the Senate. She agreed with Ross that the House's poison pill wouldn't work.

"It was done last year, too," she said. "It is meant to pit us against the road builders and the road builders aren't buying it."

In the Senate budget bill, which senators are expected to pass later this week, there is $9 million for the high-speed rail -$4 million for construction and $5 million for stations, like Lakeland, and for connecting light-rail systems.

Earlier Tuesday, Ross was able to remove a tax break the Legislature had given to people building related businesses near the rail system. It was the excuse Bush gave last year for vetoing the Florida High Speed Rail Authority's $7.3 million.

"We were simply addressing the governor's concerns to get a change in the high-speed rail rules that exempted those who would be building concessions and such related to the rail from the sales tax. Now I am sure he will have no trouble with the appropriation this year," Ross said, with a strained straight face.

But while Bush and Gallagher are working hard to kill the bullet train, supporters think they can hold on.

"There has been no movement to fully fund the high-speed rail, which the voters of Florida directed the state to do, but the engineering work is ongoing," Sen. Dockery said. "I think the leaders here who write the budgets are waiting to see what the governor's results will be, but until that time, they have been out of compliance with a constitutional mandate.

"But if there is any doubt, the high-speed rail is a long way from being dead," she said.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

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